As with most of Delvaux’s paintings, the meaning behind this scene is mysterious, and the relationship between the clothed and semi-nude figures, as well as their relationship to their surroundings remains obscure. Throughout his lifetime, the artist resisted providing any sort of narrative for his pictures, stating quite clearly, "I do not feel the need to give a temporal explanation of what I do, neither do I feel the need to account for my human subjects who exist only for the purpose of my painting. These figures recount no history: they are. Further, they express nothing in themselves" (quoted in Paul Delvaux 1897-1994 (exhibition catalogue), Op. cit., p. 22).
In an earlier version of this image, titled Le Veilleur II and painted in 1961, Delvaux depicted a similar modern urban setting with the train and its illuminated windows dominating the night-time scene. In the foreground the night watchman referred to in the title stands facing the trains, a lamp in his hand. In the present composition, painted the following year, the oil-lamp alone hangs on a wooden fence, and the four figures, which appear to belong to different, unrelated worlds, dominate the image. The composition displays a wonderful play of light and darkness, reminiscent of Magritte’s celebrated series of oils known as L’Empire des lumières: a dark tonality, the full moon and long shadows indicate an evening scene and stand in contrast to the bright sky illuminated by the flame-like colors of the setting sun. Barbara Emerson has written of the way that "Delvaux uses light to great effect, almost as if he were manipulating theatrical equipment of spots and dimmers" (B. Emerson, Delvaux, Paris & Antwerp, 1985, p. 174).
The importance of the imagined architectural setting was paramount for Delvaux. While in the present composition he depicts an entirely modern exterior dominated by contemporary buildings and trains, he was certainly aware of the ancient connection made between the column and the human form, particularly a draped female body, and David Scott has pointed out how Delvaux's early mastery of architectural drawing played an all-important role in the development of his imagery: "Delvaux uses perspective to establish a tension between nude and background, in which these elements combine, becoming charged with erotic energy. In transmitting its electricity along the lines of perspective with which it is juxtaposed, the nude body eroticizes its environment; the viewer of a work, while absorbed by the desirable objects in the foreground of the picture, is nevertheless enticed by the perspectival lines to look through or beyond them" (D. Scott, Paul Delvaux: Surrealizing the Nude, London, 1992, p. 103).
Although Delvaux's paintings are renowned for their other-worldly imagery, the artist claimed not to be a proponent of the writings of Sigmund Freud and did not invest his compositions with psychoanalytic references favored by, among others, Dalí and Miró. Delvaux's approach to painting was more subtle in its representation of the uncanny: without being overtly grotesque or offensive with his imagery, he would interrupt the peacefulness and banality of a given scene with instances of the bizarre. Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque writes of the artist in the context of the Surrealists: "There is no need whatsoever of psychological analyses or psychoanalytical interpretations... to understand the world of Delvaux. It is made of simplicity and reality. It is the blossoming and affirmation of poetry by means of the contrasts that exist between the great monumental figures and the anachronistic settings in which they move. In this the artist agrees with the thinking of Breton who declared that the more the relationships were distant and exact, the more powerful the image would be. More than Delvaux the painter, it was Delvaux the surrealist poet whom Eluard and Breton hailed because his pictorial universe exists out of time, eludes fashion and defies any attempt at classification" (quoted in Paul Delvaux 1897-1994 (exhibition catalogue), Op. cit., p. 27).
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